Sheet Music: Hymn Meditations, Vol. 1

This post isn’t about psalms. It is, however, about a style of composition that owes much to the Netherlands organ tradition of improvisations and fantasies on Genevan psalm tunes.

I have been trying to arrange hymns for as long as I can remember playing music. I still have a shaky manuscript of a simple arrangement of “When I Survey the Wondrous Cross” written when I was five or six years old. By the time I was ten or eleven, I was playing some of my own arrangements in church services. At that time, I knew nothing about psalmody besides the fact that some of my favorite choral pieces to listen to were drawn from psalm texts. Nor did I have enough music theory to really know how to compose. I doodled with things that sounded good to me–that was all.

I can’t remember when or how I was introduced to the Dutch style of improvising on psalm and hymn tunes. It must have been around 2011 or 2012, and it may very well have been through a YouTube video of John Propitius’s famous Fantasie over Psalm 42 (which I wrote about here). That inspired me to record lots of attempts at psalm and hymn improvisations, such as this rambling treatment of Psalm 84 and this set of improvised variations on Psalm 134, recorded in Manila, the Philippines, in 2014.

In college I got more acquainted with the theories behind composition, and I even persuaded the chair of the music department at Geneva College to grant me an independent study with emeritus professor Dr. Robert Copeland, a prolific composer and arranger of psalms. After these lessons, my compositions grew simultaneously better and worse–better, because I understood something about voice leading and part writing, and worse, because the texture got more intricate and more harmonically edgy. Somehow, through no fault of my teachers, I picked up an assumption that serious music shouldn’t sound good. It should be an exercise for the mind, not a feast for the ears. My compositions began with pencil and paper, and then I struggled to learn and perform them.

A variety of factors have pulled me back since then, but I think one of the greatest was this realization, which sounds unnecessarily philosophical: music and rhetoric are intertwined. Rhetoric, the discipline I am pursuing a Ph.D. in, is about conveying worthy ideas in a memorable way to impress them upon the hearts of an audience. Music is no different. If music is created for the mind only and not the heart, it will fail to have a lasting impact. If it penetrates the heart, it will stay there forever. And music that penetrates the heart is music that sounds good.

So I’ve returned to my earlier practice of improvising at the piano or organ, and then–only when I hit something that sticks in my ear for days or weeks afterwards–do I write it down and polish it into a full arrangement. The three arrangements in the set that I’ve now published on SheetMusicPlus.com were all composed this way.

I Know Whom I Have Believed

This arrangement began on a wheezy old organ on a bluff overlooking the city of Pittsburgh earlier this summer. I had set up an appointment to record, but I had not banked on the fact that the organ’s wind reservoir had terrible leaks and could not be played at all above a certain volume level. In scrapping the list of pieces I hoped to play, I started exploring the things the instrument could still do beautifully, and this improvisation was the spontaneous result.

My friend Gert van Hoef left an appreciative comment on the YouTube video, but what neither he nor I knew at the time was that I would dedicate the finished arrangement to him and perform it during our duo concert in Veenendaal, the Netherlands, last month. While it sounded fair enough on the crippled little instrument in Pittsburgh, the piece sounded incomparably better on that fine Dutch organ. Gert kept his copy of the sheet music and has performed this arrangement in his own concerts since then.

Great Is Thy Faithfulness

In the fall of 2020, I tried to make the most of coronavirus cancellations and closures by visiting empty churches with beautiful pipe organs. I improvised the first version of this piece at the First Presbyterian Church of Beaver Falls. The tranquility of the opening lines has stuck with me ever since. I kept working on the arrangement and submitted it to a composers’ recital of the Pittsburgh Chapter of the American Guild of Organists, where Dr. Ann Labounsky graciously performed it. The version published here is a revision of that revision.

Jerusalem, Thou City Fair and High

While both of the previous arrangements were of well-known hymns in the blue Psalter Hymnal and Trinity Psalter Hymnal, the third deals with a more obscure hymn tune that has haunted me ever since doing some historical research on the city of Coburg, Germany. This tune originated nearby, in Erfurt, and was paired with a text by Coburg professor Johannes Matthaeus Meyfart. The lyrics are a beautiful depiction of believers’ longing for our heavenly home, and the tune complements this longing wonderfully.

These three hymn arrangements are my first endeavor at publishing instrumental church music. Depending on how well they are received, I may go on to continue improvising and publishing others. In any case, the process of composing is a refreshing and spiritually enriching one.

You can buy a PDF edition of this set, Hymn Meditations, Volume 1, at SheetMusicPlus.com.

–MRK

Introducing a Study Guide on Reformed Worship

When I first picked up Abraham Kuyper’s book Our Worship a few years ago, I immediately thought, “This is a tremendously helpful resource for learning about the Reformed liturgy! Why don’t more people know about it?” A few possible reasons came to mind–Kuyper was writing more than 100 years ago, his book includes some tedious discussions of Dutch customs that are no longer relevant, and the organization of the work is difficult to follow since it was compiled from several years of magazine articles. But I remain convinced that the core of the book is rock-solid in developing a greater understanding and appreciation of the scriptural and historical reasons for the liturgy that developed in the continental Reformed churches.

Thankfully, Reformed Fellowship agrees with that sentiment, and they are in the process of publishing a booklet which I wrote to distill Kuyper’s central insights from Our Worship into an easily digestible format. The booklet is adapted from my series on liturgy in The Outlook Magazine in 2020. The booklet is 72 pages, a handy size for Bible studies, Sunday school classes, and officer training. It will be available from Reformed Fellowship in mid-September. A preview is available here.

Here are the endorsements this study has received:

Michael Kearney’s study guide to Abraham Kuyper’s Our Worship provides a wonderfully concise and clear exposition of the nature of public worship in the continental Reformed tradition. In a period of church history marked by “worship wars” and widely-divergent views of what constitutes a God-honoring form of worship, Kearney’s study guide is particularly welcome. The clarity and format of the booklet, including the provision of “questions for reflection and discussion” at the conclusion of each chapter, make this an especially useful resource for the educational ministry of Reformed churches. Though readers may take exception to some of Kuyper’s views on public worship, they will be challenged “to develop a deeper appreciation for the patterns of their worship and the reasons behind those patterns.”

Dr. Cornelis Venema, President, Mid-America Reformed Seminary

As our historic forms and patterns of worship become increasingly strange to the surrounding culture, Reformed Christians need to reflect deeply on “why we do what we do.” In Meeting with God, Michael Kearney helps us do just that. In the end, you will not only want to read Kuyper for yourself, but you will have developed a greater “liturgical
awareness.”

Rev. Zachary Wyse, pastor of Westside Reformed Church, Cincinnati, OH

Not only were we made to worship (Ps. 150:6), but we can’t not worship (Rom. 1:25). The question is whether or not we will worship well. Michael Kearney’s Meeting with God is a welcome companion to Abraham Kuyper’s truly excellent 300-page book on worship. This faithful summary of Kuyper’s most practical liturgical insights deserves to be read by leaders and members in Reformed churches today.

Rev. William Boekestein, pastor of Immanuel Fellowship Church, Kalamazoo, MI, and co-editor of Faithful and Fruitful: Essays for Elders and Deacons

The booklet will be out soon, so stay tuned for an update!

–MRK

Gert van Hoef and Michael Kearney: Livestream from Veenendaal

https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:RM36887_Markt_9B.JPG

Next Thursday I look forward to joining my friend Gert van Hoef in the Dutch town of Veenendaal for a livestreamed organ concert at the Oude (Hervormd) Kerk. The concert will air at 20:00 Central European time, or 2 p.m. Eastern in North America. I hope you can join us!

You can read my interview with Gert last year for Christian Renewal Magazine here.

–MRK

Psalm 138: The Better Composer

Few psalms exude the combination of confidence and humble faith that are present in Psalm 138.

The Genevan tune of Psalm 138 has been a personal favorite since long before I knew it was the Genevan tune of Psalm 138. In my childhood, Family Radio was often playing in the background in our house, and on occasion I would hear a lively and engaging panflute and organ duet and wonder what it was. It was the Dutch panflutist Noortje van Middelkoop and organist Harm Hoeve, in fact, playing a fantasia on Psalm 138.

As I got ready to leave for college, Psalm 138 took on new significance, as I pondered the prayer at the end of the psalm: “Do not forsake the work of your hands.” As a college student, I was chronically uncertain about my major and eventual vocation, and I looked with anxiety at peers who seemed to have their life already clearly in focus. Each time I practiced the organ, I would end by playing the Genevan tune of Psalm 138. My comfort then, and my comfort now, is that glorious promise. God will bring his own work to completion at the proper time. Thus, Psalm 138 is an Old Testament equivalent of Paul’s words in Philippians 1:6: “Being sure of this, that he who began a good work in you will bring it to completion at the day of Jesus Christ.”

Last year, I finally put an end to a suite for organ based on the Genevan tune of Psalm 138, including the last stanza that I had played so often in college. I recorded the second movement/stanza of that suite at a Dominican church in Poznan, Poland, but was a long way from being satisfied with it. I tweaked and tweaked the music until it was barely recognizable. Then, midway through the editing, I realized the piece I was searching for had already been written.

Feike Asma (1912-1984) often performed a beautiful fantasia inspired by the first stanza of the Dutch rendition of Genevan Psalm 138. Actually, his improvisation contains three complete stanzas of the melody, so even though his focus may have been on the first portion of the psalm, I like to think of this piece as moving through the whole text in order. It begins softly, meditatively, exploring the inner recesses of the human heart for reasons to praise the Lord. There is a poignant leap within the first line of the melody, a motif which Asma exploits during the prelude with increasing pitch and intensity. A canonic section follows in which the right hand plays a softer chordal version of the chorale tune and the left hand gives a solo rendition. In an interlude, Asma adds color and depth to the organ registration, leading to a second stanza with the melody in the pedals. Finally, the registration expands to full organ in an Allegro section with a rapidly rising chromatic sequence based on the second half of the psalm’s opening line, leading to a majestic chorale.

All that was needed was a beautiful Dutch organ on which to record this wonderful psalm, and I found that organ in Trinity Episcopal Cathedral in Cleveland, Ohio. It’s a three-manual mechanical organ built by the Flentrop Orgelbouw firm of the Netherlands in 1977. It’s the real deal. It was a great privilege to be able to play and record here, and I am thankful to cathedral organist Todd Wilson for the ability to do so.

There’s a spiritual lesson to share through these brief anecdotes. My busy efforts to produce a composition on Psalm 138 did not lead to any lasting fruit. The real music only came when I realized that a far better composer had already written a piece I could never have imagined. The same holds for our lives: I can spend untold exertion trying to write the perfect story for myself, or I can rest in the assurance that the Author and Finisher of my faith, not me, holds the pen. God is the better composer. His promises will be brought to completion at the day of Jesus Christ. He will not forsake the work of his hands.

–MRK

Organ Recital: “The Holy Spirit: Our Comforter”

Gathering and preparing the music for an organ concert is often a spiritually enriching experience. In this case, I have been asked to prepare a concert that centers on the themes of Ascension Day and Pentecost, celebrating the reign of Jesus Christ and the outpouring of the Holy Spirit. It’s common for Christians to think about praying in the Spirit or through the Spirit, but not praying or singing to the Spirit. And yet there is no shortage of wonderful psalms and hymns that specifically address the vital role of the Holy Spirit in the believer’s life. Psalms 25 and 42, although not specifically directed to the Spirit, come to mind as beautiful testimonies to the comforting work that the Spirit performs in believers’ hearts.

If you’re in the New York metropolitan area, consider coming out to St. John’s Lutheran Church in Sayville on May 27 to enjoy this music live–a rare treat in the age of coronavirus. Attendance is free, but you’ll need to sign up at this link since capacity is limited to 65. If you’re not able to make it, look up some translations and Internet recordings of the pieces below, and meditate on the incomprehensible gift of the Spirit.

Program:

  • Fantasia super “Komm, heiliger Geist,” BWV 651/Johann Sebastian Bach, 1685–1750
  • Fantasie Psalm 25:1/Willem Hendrik Zwart, 1925–1997
  • Orgelbüchlein, Pentecost section, BWV 631-633/Johann Sebastian Bach
  • Fantasie over Psalm 42:3, 5/Feike Asma, 1912–1984
  • Overture from “St. Paul”/Felix Mendelssohn, 1809–1847
  • Chorale prelude on “Liebster Jesu, wir sind hier,” BWV 731/Johann Sebastian Bach
  • Improvisation on MELITA (Navy Hymn)/Michael Kearney, 1995–
  • “Finlandia,” Op. 26/Jean Sibelius, 1865–1957

Unto me, O Lord Jehovah,
Show thy ways and teach thou me;
So that, by thy Spirit guided,
Clearly I thy paths may see.
In thy truth wilt thou me guide,
Teach me, God of my salvation;
All the day for thee I bide,
Lord, with eager expectation.

trans. Samuel G. Brondsema, 1931

–MRK


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